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Huskers learning that small things can add up to wins

October 31, 2018 GMT

LINCOLN — Devine Ozigbo was skeptical about the so-called “accountability list” at first. It didn’t seem like the kind of thing that could help Nebraska win football games.

Started by coaches and eventually taken over by captains like seniors Jerald Foster and Luke Gifford, the idea is to track how well players handle their off-the-field responsibilities. Going to class. Lifting weights. Receiving treatment. Getting meals.

Shirk any of those duties and their name goes on a list for all to see.

But the Huskers have seen a funny pattern emerge. Some names were listed during the first couple of weeks against Akron and when the team played well opposite Colorado. More went up as the losing streak deepened at Michigan and against Purdue. Then it thinned out against Northwestern and has leveled off during the recent two-game winning streak.

“Now there’s just not many people on the list,” junior linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “If there are people, it’s probably one or two.”

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Said Ozigbo: “It seems to be proven right. The smaller the list gets, those are our better weeks. And it’s been getting smaller gradually over time.”

As Nebraska focuses on internal improvement, the list is another aid for helping to view opponents as “nameless” and “faceless.” That goal — repeated often by coach Scott Frost this season — will be tested more than ever this week as the Huskers go from overmatched FCS school Bethune-Cookman to reigning Big Ten champion Ohio State.

Quarterback Adrian Martinez said human nature doesn’t really creep in for him during such an abrupt transition of opponents — “We’re in such a habit of attacking each day,” he said. Cornerback Dicaprio Bootle said this week feels like the right time to play the Buckeyes, not because of OSU’s Oct. 20 loss at Purdue but because of the wave of momentum Nebraska is on after winning its past two games by a combined 98-37.

Other players said the mood around the program felt optimistic even amid the 0-6 start. Many were laughing and loose after those workouts, and Frost said team demeanor hasn’t changed on Mondays no matter what the weekend result was. Rather, everyone simply enjoys getting back on the field.

“It’s gotten a lot better,” Frost said of overall accountability. “News flash: When guys are doing things the right way, we win more games. The guys get it now and we’re not asking anybody to do anything crazy. We’re asking them to be where they’re supposed to be and be on time and do the right things.

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“What’s crazy is when you’re doing that, football gets more fun, life gets more fun. Cutting corners and finding ways around things and not being reliable isn’t a good way to be successful on the field or off. Those habits have to be learned either when you’re young or when you’re in college or when you’re an adult. As a team, that’s probably where I’ve seen the most growth. Guys are starting to understand that when they have a responsibility they need to live up to it and be where they’re supposed to be.”

Still, many players remember the 56-14 loss to Ohio State last year and the 62-3 outcome in Columbus in 2016. The Huskers didn’t force a single punt in those games, giving up 16 touchdowns on 22 total drives.

Barry said the Huskers recognize that a missed assignment or tackle Saturday at the Horseshoe is more likely to result in a long touchdown than last week. A strong start is especially important just after noon, Eastern time, as OSU tries to bounce back from its first defeat with a vengeance.

Martinez, who took an official visit to Columbus last year as a recruit, said the best way to approach the challenge is as just another day in the Big Ten. The way the Huskers are self-focused, they’re already halfway there.

“I believe in our team, I believe in my teammates and I know we believe in each other,” Martinez said. “There’s no question in all of our minds that we can compete with Ohio State and beat Ohio State. That’s our goal. I think if you go into a game thinking you can’t win, then you’re already lost.”